VIENNA, Austria -- Former divinity student Phillip Tengg says he never set out to be a Grinch with his anti-Santa crusade.
Tengg's spirited campaign ''for a contemplative Christmas'' favoring Austrian traditions over the American Santa Claus caused a stir earlier this month, when he and other activists distributed thousands of stickers depicting Santa with a red slash across his face.
Now Tengg and his Pro-Christkind (Pro-Christ Child) Society, conceding they may have gone too far, have promised to lighten up on the jolly old elf next Christmas.
In an apologetic ''Open Letter to America'' released over the weekend, Pro-Christkind said it never meant to offend Americans and others who hold Santa dear and swamped the group with letters and e-mails of complaint.
''We very much regret that our stickers which showed a crossed-out Santa Claus have caused some misunderstanding and have hurt the feelings of Santa Claus' friends,'' the letter said.
''In our zeal, we neglected two things: that there are people in the world we live in who believe in Santa Claus and for whom Santa Claus represents an important part of Christmas, and that we have actually expressed something completely contrary to what we wanted to express.''
Pro-Christkind members, who urge Austrians to hold to their centuries-old yuletide traditions and resist the incursion of the American Santa, insist they have nothing personal against Santa.
They say they're simply trying to keep the traditional St. Nikolaus and the Christ Child as the reasons for the season in Austria.
They see Santa and his reindeer as commercial distractions to what they contend should be a time of worship and reflection in this overwhelmingly Roman Catholic country where the carol ''Silent Night'' was composed in 1816.
But the anti-Santa stickers they've been plastering on the stalls of Austria's famed outdoor Christmas markets blurred that message, said Tengg, 27, who founded the society in 1998 in the alpine city of Innsbruck.
The ensuing media attention in Europe and the United States took Pro-Christkind by surprise.
Its efforts to distance itself from more extreme opponents of Santa backfired when it posted on its Web site provocative examples of electronic greeting cards under the heading ''Schwachsinniges,'' German for ''nonsense.''
Those e-cards included depictions of a Santa skewered by an airplane, a Santa urinating on a rooftop and the corpse of a Santa riddled with bullets. They weren't the work of Pro-Christkind, which said it posted them ''to demonstrate the opposite of what we are standing for,'' but that distinction was lost when television stations aired footage of the Web site.
''The whole thing went in a direction we never wanted,'' Tengg told the newspaper Die Presse. Pro-Christkind since has pulled the e-cards from its site.
The fuss has triggered a firestorm of protest in Pro-Christkind's chat group. Tucked among hundreds of mostly German expressions of support for the group's crusade to keep Christ in Christmas are terse messages in English such as ''Santa Claus forever!'' and ''Get a life! Grow up!''
Although the group still contends that Santa Claus ''has become a symbol for the unbridled commercialism of the pre-Christmas season,'' Tengg has promised to ditch the anti-Santa stickers and come up with ''a symbol that unites all the friends of a contemplative Christmas.''
''Don't worry about Santa Claus,'' Pro-Christkind's letter says. ''Merry Christmas to everyone ... within every culture and its unique traditions.''
On the Net:
Pro-Christ Child organization, www.pro-christkind.org
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